Book Review: Waiting Game

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Book: Waiting Game
Series: Chronicles of Covent
Author: J.L. Ficks and J.E. Dugue
Genres: fantasy, action, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Doljinaar. Kingdom of might and stone. One name is whispered upon the lips of every man, woman or child old enough to know fear. An assassin lives among them. A foreigner born of a far off dark land and yet lies as close as their shadows. An assassin that goes by the name of Shade…

It has been many long years since Shade left the black forests of his people, the Dark Elves, where he was trained among the ranks of the Unseen. He has grown rich and powerful in the world of men, feeding off mankind’s compulsion for spilling its own blood. His name has become like a cold wind slipping in through the night, but even he tires of his own legend and yearns for a challenge…

And so when Shade was offered a job that could mean his own downfall, he did not hesitate to accept. He would strike at the crimelord of the Kurn underground. In one bold stroke he would make himself an enemy of his own dark underworld. Has he finally found a worthy enemy or will this contract be his last?”

Notes of Interest:

I bought this book because I was on a quest for books about dark elves and this popped up in my search. Dark elves originated in Norse mythology and traveled down into Germanic and English lore, but most people today are more familiar with their modern cousins from fantasy role-playing games and world-setting novels. Dungeons and Dragons, in particular, has inspired a large number of other dark elf fantasy races, cultures, settings, etc. As a fan of dark elves, they fall into a category of interest where I’m always curious to see how similar or how different writers and artists can design them.

What could have made it better for me:

This book needs better editing. Too many spelling and grammar issues distracted me from the story. That’s the easy part to critique. After that, I have to say this is one of those books where I had a hard time deciding whether it was poorly written or just not my cup of tea.

I’ve explained in previous blog reviews how I usually try to keep my own biases in mind when reviewing something, because poor editing, poor structure, poor characters, etc. qualifies as bad writing. But stories about cowboys, for example, usually don’t appeal to me because I’ve never been a fan of westerns. I believe readers need to be aware of their own biases when reviewing because there is nothing an author can do to fix bias. Likewise, just because I don’t like westerns doesn’t mean someone else can’t. What bores me might excite someone else. So, I usually “give back” a star rating if I didn’t enjoy something, but think it bias brought it down for whatever reason.

Having said that, there were times when environment details felt off-topic. I remember one scene where the main character is arriving in a city and walking through a crowd, but it felt like more attention was being paid to a particular conversation between passers-by than the assassin, so my attention drifted. I found myself forgetting about the main character and wondering where the conversation was leading. In the end I think it was just meant to demonstrate how people quake at the sight of a dark elf, but that is demonstrated frequently in this book, which brought up some realism issues for me.

Assassins don’t normally like to be visible or draw attention to themselves … for a number of reasons, if for nothing but their prey could run. Yet everywhere this assassin went, people knew his name or knew his reputation or knew enough to be very afraid of dark elves, even though he was far from his homeland. If he is that well-known and that terrifying, so as to stand out in a crowd everywhere he goes, how does he do his job? The hype surrounding this character made him less credible in my eyes. And the fact that he considered himself to be just as terrifying as everyone else perceives him made him feel one-dimensional. Shade is supposed to be a bad-ass assassin, but it seems that is all that he is. No other dimensions of personality are shown, except for one scene where he was afraid while trying to fight his way through some undead. His dialog was a bit over the top — the “I will be your worst nightmare” kind of protagonist. But this is where my personal bias might have influenced my assessment. I just don’t like characters like that. I don’t think readers have to like the characters they’re reading about; the story belongs to the character, regardless of whether readers like him or not. Stories should never be about making character likable. However, I tend to have a hard time relating to protagonists who truly believe they are invincible, especially when they are static. The villain and henchmen had even less attention to deeper development — a smarmy crime lord and his muscle-for-brains thugs.

Lastly, I felt the plot was rather one-dimensional, too. It has good structure in terms of sticking to an outline and going from point A to point B to accomplish the mission. But that’s all there is, except for a few flashbacks and world building explanations. So, this book is about the main character going from Place A, where he has a fight, to Place B, where he has a fight, to Place C, where he has a fight, and so on, until he reaches the big boss battle and they trade insults and then they have the final fight. But even then, the final battle is very underplayed after all that led up to it about the assassin wanting a challenge. His final strategy was skipped over and whipped out as a surprise, rather than followed, even though the reader follows him every step of the journey up to that point.

This fantasy novel felt more like an action movie with heavily choreographed fight scenes. Or I could see this story being done as a comic because of its straightforward objective and acrobatics. But I expect more depth from a novel. To be fair, this might be my love of complexity coming through. There’s nothing wrong with simple, straightforward stories and over-the-top martial arts, as long as they fit the overall theme of the story. But, personally, I have to have more than a novel about fights. Fights are exciting elements to include in adventure stories, but if that’s all the story is, to me, it reads more like a quest journal from a role-playing game. And for fight scenes in novels, the story-telling should match the pace of the battle — short, explosive, and to-the-point, like the action itself. If a fight takes an entire chapter to describe it loses my interest … and perhaps credibility.

What I liked about it:

I mentioned above that the plot was not flawed. It doesn’t have any gaping holes that didn’t make sense, or anything like that. Which means it was easy to follow and understand — a quick read.

My favourite part was probably the flashbacks because they went deeper than the main plot and had more “humanity” in them. Even in fantasy and sci-fi, it’s the “humanity” of the characters (even alien creatures) that readers latch on to in attempts to relate. In the flashbacks we see some of the training this assassin went through, and it’s a chance to see how that harshness contributed to his cold, hard personality. (And I realize assassins generally are stone-cold loners, but interesting characters are more than that, regardless of their professions … sometimes even because of their professions.) I also liked the flashbacks because I liked the glimpse into dark elf society. And I enjoyed the descriptions and world-building aspects regarding the dark forests where they originate. Since that is one of the interests that led me to the book in the first place. Those parts of the book held my interest more than others. The flashbacks also gave context for the main character more so than the rest of the story. This story doesn’t have any secondary characters as foils to the main character. His journey is mostly solitary from beginning to end. But in the flashbacks, you see his relations to his teacher, his fellow classmates, his traditions, etc. This is where there is more substance beyond a string of fights on the road to his goal.

The comedic inserts were sometimes funny, but sometimes over the top. The stupidity of the henchmen felt out of place if the king of thieves was to be taken seriously. I liked the faun, however. He felt more original and appropriate to the overall atmosphere than the two thugs that kept failing at their duties.

The book has nice illustrations. Most novels don’t offer such visuals, so that’s a bit of a treat.

Recommendation:

I recommend this book for a quick read if you really enjoy action. The setting makes it fantasy. The plot makes it adventure. But the bulk of the text is about action. How much of a novel should be devoted to action is perhaps a personal preference.

There were times when this novel read more like a comic or role-play game journal, so I had a hard time deciding whether I was supposed to take it seriously or not, off and on. I think my expectations were set on something more like a Forgotten Realms novel, and that is not what the authors were trying to accomplish here. The back matter of the novel explains the authors’ marketing strategy.

“Most authors tell their best stories first. Readers are left increasingly disappointed as prequels and spinoff tales never again reach that full epic scale and depth found in the original trilogy or saga.” So they designed this book as something small that leads up to something epic. They refer to The Hobbit laying the foundation for Lord of the Rings by example, asking readers to imagine a book for Gandalf, a book for Strider, and so on.

The problem with this kind of strategy is that the first book in a series always bears the burden of having to hook enough interest to carry the rest of the series. The Hobbit was an excellent novel with depth, well-defined characters, and a stand-alone plot. It didn’t need Lord of the Rings to be successful. Had The Hobbit been lower quality, people might never have been interested in reading what came after it. Even in modern “arc” series that do depend on the books that follow, the first book must be a “best” effort, or no one will be interested in what follows.

So I feel like the “save the best for last” marketing strategy worked against this book. If I had started with the “best” book in the series, I might have been interested enough to follow additional individual character stories on the side. That’s how fandoms work. As it is, there is not enough here to interest me in seeing more of this character in a bigger world or more complex plot.

I’m going to rate this one “not my cup of tea” with a note that it definitely needs better editing, but give back one star in case there are other readers out there who think they might enjoy it.

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

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“Siren Bath” screenshot taken from my Oblivion game. This lovely dark-skinned siren was inspired by a character from my novel series. But I can say no more until after the book is published, or I’ll spoil it. 😉

This is a revised article that I first posted a few years back on my old blog after reading an article on racial diversity in speculative fiction. The question is being raised a lot these days about why main characters in books, movies, TV, and games all fit the same stereotype. If successful writers choose the same types of characters in their speculative fiction, diverse readers might not be able to relate. Therefore, there won’t be as many diverse readers of speculative fiction. Therefore, there won’t be as many diverse writers. Therefore, there won’t be as many readers—oh, right. I just said that. And thus we have a vicious cycle. So how do we break the cycle? How do writers come out of their own experiences to write about diverse characters in order to reach diverse readers, so that there is more diversity among writers of speculative fiction?

1. Appreciate how beauty itself is diverse.
First of all, question what defines beauty, not just in skin tones, but in body weight, shape, age, ability, and other terms. I think the only way we are truly going to increase diversity among fictional characters is for our real world culture to appreciate how beauty itself is diverse. It’s also helpful to remember that leading characters don’t have to be “beautiful” in order to be part of a beautiful story. The true beauty of a character design, just like with real people, is what’s found in the soul. Still, physical representation is important, so writers should reach for it where possible. Or maybe don’t reach for it at all and let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks on occasion. Sometimes characters just come to us “as is” because that’s who they are. There’s nothing wrong with that. But as a writer, if your characters look the same, again and again, you should challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone and try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. That is, after all, a writer’s job — to get inside the heads of lots of different people to tell their different stories.

2. Read beyond your comfort zone.
How does a writer step out of her comfort zone? Read beyond your comfort zone. When I studied literature in high school and college, most of the literary works I read were from British or American white authors. But in college I had to take one course on world and ethnic literature, in which we read literature by South American, Native American, Jewish, African, Asian, and Hispanic authors. By not being able to relate to the main character’s local culture, I learned about those cultures, and how their life experiences were very different from mine. At the same time, I saw how much we still had in common as human beings. This is the birthplace of compassion. This is what literature is all about. Be more diverse in your reading materials and authors read — in listening to what you receive — and you will be in a better position to understand and write about character diversity in your output.

3. Create diversity where there is none.
This is where speculative fiction writers can have a lot of fun because we don’t have to stick to humanity’s limitations, even though ultimately it is the human experience we write about. I write about elves, among other magical creatures. In some ways I wanted to stick very close to the original Norse mythology of the Prose Edda, so my elves would feel familiar. But in other ways I wanted to create my own interpretations and explore my imagined world setting. There is a debate among lore scholars about whether dark elves and black elves are the same race, and whether dwarves are actually gray elves or dark elves. The earliest records are unclear. So, I used that to my advantage when I created my own various elven races.

I also changed the meaning of “light” and “dark” where fae are concerned. In historic lore, the reason light elves were called “light” was because ancient people thought they were made of light, like spirits or angels. They are described as white, shining, and bright. Dark elves are depicted as amazing smiths of wondrous magical artifacts or cursed bringers of nightmares, depending on how you interpret the Prose Edda, so I decided to make my dark elves from “darkness” or “shadow”. I make it very clear in my books that my elves are not humans with pointy ears. Though they have humanoid features, they are very much a different, eldritch species. They are light or dark according to how they’ve been made of light or shadow and according to how they’ve adapted to living in light or dark places. They are also light or dark according to whether their magic is external and visible (wizardry crafted from the surrounding world’s Weave), or internal and hidden (sorcery manifested from the fae’s own mana). Maybe I will write more extensively on this in another blog on world building with races later, but for my purpose here, know that I’m talking about things much more important than skin color.

My “fae of light” include forest and plains elves that are snow white; desert jinn who are golden like their sands; dryads that are the colors of trees and live scattered across the land in isolation; seely and unseely faeries of rainbow colors from floating islands and meadows; and dark elves who have adapted to living on the surface wearing light elf illusions because they have been forbidden to live in the surface kingdom, but are not welcome underground in their former homeland. My “fae of dark” include subterranean elves that are blue-black like a raven’s wing; gray dwarves who live both on and under the mountains trying to remain neutral between the surface and subterranean kingdoms; and the blue-skinned merfolk who live in the ocean depths apart from the others. The surface fae can command the elements, and the sub-surface fae can command psychic powers. But, of course it depends on the individual as to what kind of magic he has learned from his environment, or what other conditions he’s working under. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Develop characters as individuals, rather than blanket generalizations.
Never set up an entire fictional race as being “good” or “evil” just because that’s what they are. That might have been excusable back in the ancient days of story-telling because people had a very small scope concerning the world around them. But modern writers need to break the mold of judging a person’s ethics based on appearances or nature and create characters whose actions speak for themselves. This is how real life really works.
I make this argument about heroes and villains all the time. If your hero is so perfect he has absolutely no flaws, not only is he difficult for real people to relate to, he’s pretty predictable and boring in terms of plot twists and personal challenges. Now imagine an entire land filled with duplicates of your hero. Likewise, villains who show a complete lack of compassion or loyalty toward anything become mustache-twirling, rule-the-world, two-dimensional paper dolls that make no sense. Now envision an entire kingdom of cookie-cutter-evil villains. Saying all dark elves, dragons, trolls, etc. are evil because that’s their nature is lazy … and yes, prejudiced.

Instead, think critically about what motivates antagonists to do what they do? Unless they’re true psychopaths, they usually think they’re making good choices for good reasons. And that complicates things. Each individual character needs to be developed in such a way that his decisions fluctuate between good and bad, so the result is more “cause leads to effect” than “good versus evil”.

With that in mind, mix it up, as to who screwed up. My novel goes all over the place with pointing fingers of blame and reaping victims who then perpetuate the cycle of blame, so that it’s impossible to say an entire group is good or bad. Of course the characters might disagree because they have their own prejudices. And in some cases they have “logical” reasons for them. But those prejudices become part of their personal challenges, to try to overcome those feelings to see that the truth really does come down to individual behavior.

5. Confront issues of prejudice without apology.
Problems never talked about are problems never resolved. Nobody enjoys talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, nationalism, etc. But if we can’t confront it and talk about it, people will continue to be torn apart by hate. If you’re on the giving end, your frustration and malcontent will burn you from the inside out. If you’re on the receiving end, your life could be at risk. It’s the ugliest side of humanity. Not being able to accept and appreciate diversity is deadly.

If you are a writer, you can take advantage of the fact that fiction is often able to speak truth by using lies to talk about the tough stuff. I intentionally give my fae and humans prejudices in my books in order to address a theme that has plagued humanity since forever. Prejudice is something that shaped me, personally, as a human being for most of my life. And it’s been said that all of us have prejudices, even when we think we don’t. So, we must learn to talk about it.

Since speculative fiction doesn’t have to be a story about humans hating humans, readers can take a step back from being personally insulted to watch it play out from a safe distance … so to speak. Again, this is the purpose of all fiction: to record the human condition in ways that we can observe from the outside perspective, while relating from within. Fiction allows us to look into the mirror without being afraid that someone else might see our naked souls as glaringly as we do. Sometimes the truth is much easier to swallow when we see someone else experience it first. And then we can be inspired to apply what we’ve learned about their choices, good or bad, to our own circumstances.

Book Review: Undying Legion

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Book: Undying Legion
Series: Crown and Key series, Book 2
Author: Clay and Susan Griffin
Genres: fantasy, steampunk, Neo-Victorian, Gothic horror, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr.

With a flood of dark magic about to engulf Victorian London, can a handful of heroes vanquish a legion of the undead?

When monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane comes across the gruesome aftermath of a ritual murder in a London church, he enlists the help of magician-scribe Simon Archer and alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther. Studying the macabre scene, they struggle to understand obscure clues in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s heart—as well as bizarre mystical allusions to the romantic poetry of William Blake. One thing is clear: Some very potent black magic is at work.

But this human sacrifice is only the first in a series of ritualized slayings. Desperate to save lives while there is still time, Simon, Kate, and Malcolm—along with gadget geek Penny Carter and Charlotte, an adolescent werewolf—track down a necromancer who is reanimating the deceased. As the team battles an unrelenting army of undead, a powerful Egyptian mummy, and serpentine demons, the necromancer proves an elusive quarry. And when the true purpose of the ritual is revealed, the gifted allies must confront a destructive force that is positively apocalyptic.”

Notes of Interest:

This is the second book in the Shadow Revolution series. The first is Crown and Key, which I reviewed here: https://badcatink.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/book-review-crown-and-key/ .

The fact that I’ve returned for the second book tells you how much I liked the first one. As I stated in the previous review, I chose to read this series because of how much I enjoyed the Vampire Empire series by the Griffins. The second book in this series was exactly what I hoped it would be, so the Griffiths are quickly moving up my list of “go-to” authors when I have a literary itch to scratch.

What could have made it better for me:

As with the previous book in this series, there was nothing of note that pulled me out of the story. All the basics I look for when considering “stars” to award were there: good technical work on grammar and elements of composition, well-developed “living” characters, no plot holes or burdens in style that damage the ability to suspend disbelief, etc. So, I present this book free of warning labels. 🙂

What I liked about it:

Characterization is really well-put together for this unusual bunch. A druid, an alchemist, a hunter, an artificer/ inventor, and a werewolf … take on a necromancer, zombies, a cult, and a demon goddess. Aside from each character’s distinct personalities and contributions to the cause, there is also a growing number of noteworthy tertiary characters … like Imogen, the sister of Kate, who was the victim of a mad scientist’s experiments gone horribly wrong in the last book. These characters have enough fantasy-team archetype to feel familiar, but are unique enough in their own right to feel fresh.

I found the action scenes well-choreographed and “just right” in terms of how much or how often to offer encounters of physical conflict. I mention this because I’m currently reading a book in which the plot points seem to be nothing but one fight after another, but as much as I love adventure and action in stories, it’s too much. Perhaps it’s the difference between action and fantasy genres, but it serves as a reminder to appreciate stories like Undying Legion, which are stories with encounters, rather than it being a story about encounters. The goal, of course, is to stop the necromancer, but its a multifaceted plot connected to a handful of subplots that tie everything together … which, in my opinion, almost always creates a more complex and more interesting tale. Consistency in the plots between the first and second books is carried over well, too.

As always with the Griffins, I appreciate their style in word use and description. I often find myself looking up words I didn’t know to add to my own vocabulary, but without getting bogged down. The story flow is vivid and a good blend of imagination, action, horror, and comedy.

In my last review, I expressed how much I really liked their concept of Victorian druidism. I found it to be unique and interesting. So in this book I was pleased to see how they expanded on that concept, to explain in a little more detail how Simon’s magic works in their alternate history of the world. And yet they’ve explained it in a way that it blends seamlessly with the Victorian era obsession with the occult (opium dens, magicians, ancient Egypt, old gods, spirits of the dead, etc.) and popularity of poetry and painting. Personally, I love it when stories do this kind of thing, so this is all right up my alley. I’m always eager to enjoy these kinds of settings, more so when they are well done. And as for the elements of horror, the atmosphere in these books still embodies the penny dreadful “feel” that I expect when I pick up a book like this.

Without giving too much away regarding spoilers, I have to say I like the twist at the end regarding the necromancer’s character and objective. I won’t say it was a complete surprise because I picked up on the foreshadowing dropped here and there, but it was a nice monkey wrench in the usual outcome for a “get the bad guy” type of plot. I like books that offer antagonists where there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Recommendation:

I absolutely recommend the first two books in this series, if you are into this kind of literature. I will definitely be purchasing the third book in the series. The way the book ended changed several major attributes about the characters and the setting, so I’m very curious to see what happens now that some game changers have taken place. And I look forward to seeing how the previous incarnations of trouble will coalesce into this new and present evil that the increasingly close-knit “misfit” protagonists will have to face.

Plotting Intentions

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One way to enjoy peace of mind: expressing appreciation for moments of joy, little pleasures, and what we already have. Gratitudes come in many shapes and sizes.

Usually at this time of year, I am making resolutions. This time, I decided to write down my intentions because two of the things I rely on to keep myself sane used that word. It made me pause to look up the difference. After all, words are my business.

A resolution is “a firm decision to do or not do something; the act of solving a problem, a dispute, or a contentious matter.” An intention is “an aim or a plan; the healing process of a wound.” On the surface they may seem the same, but do you see the difference? To me, the difference is forced victory versus goals and healing. The first follows whatever means is necessary to reach the end goal. The second plots goals every step of the way, gently, with foresight, and emphasizes the means even though the end goal is still a positive resolution. The first is not concerned with a healthy outcome, just a finished one. The second approach is more holistic, integrating both the peace of mind about the journey and the destination.

So, this year, I am setting my intentions on peace of mind. I intend to explore the many ways I can achieve peace of mind because 2016 was such a rough year. I was saying just the other day I know I’m not the only one who feels as if I was run over by a large truck multiple times, then dragged to the top of a cliff and thrown over, only to be dragged to the top and thrown over again … and again. So, this year, whatever challenges it presents, I need a stronger mind and body. I feel peace of mind will lead to both. It’s not a final or finite destination, but a path I want to journey.

This past weekend, I had a conversation with someone who was having trouble plotting, and it made me realize that this is relative for writers, as well. Many people tend to see the plot as the end of the story, but it’s actually ONLY the means. The end is the objective or goal. The plot is the path that gets your characters from the beginning to the end. And that can be done many ways. So, if you set your intentions on ending your story, you must start with an objective or goal for your characters to accomplish. Once you have your goal, THEN you can plot points on how to reach it. Just like in real life when you start a project, you have to know what you want in the end, and then buy the materials, break it down into steps, and work on it little by little.

This doesn’t mean the plans can’t change. Nor does it mean the ending will turn out the way you originally thought it should. I’m a big fan of Bob Ross, and I love how he repeatedly points out there are no mistakes in the joy of painting, only happy accidents. So in stories and in real life, when things don’t go according to plan, it pays to be flexible and consider detours as part of the journey. Again, this is where intention is different from resolution. Resolution is often very unforgiving. If we set out to lose weight, but then eat a whole pizza, we may feel like we have to start over because our clean slate was ruined. If we plot a course toward an end for our characters, but then we hit writer’s block, we may wish to trash the whole thing and doubt our abilities to write anything at all. However, if we intend to lose weight, we can plan for pizza and chart our successes and failures because having more successes than we did last year is a successful improvement toward our goal, too. If we intend to write that novel, but can’t figure out how to conquer plotting, we can change the plot to have the characters “fail” that particular quest and come up with something better because road maps can detour onto many off-roads and still reach a meaningful destination.

The reality is no one is perfect. Failure happens. It’s inevitable. Therefore, what’s important is that we learn and heal and get back up again … and again. One of my favourite Japanese proverbs is 「七転び八起き」/ “nana korobi ya oki”/ “fall down 7 times; get up 8.” This is the difference between resolution and intention. This is the difference between fretting over plots and setting goals.

I wish all of my readers, my fellow writers, my friends, my family, and anyone reading this today a happy and healthy 2017. May your goals be reachable by many paths. May you find many ways to enjoy peace of mind. May you forgive yourself, get back up, and try again, no matter how many times you fall.

 

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

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Book: Eat, Pray, Love
Series:
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Genres: non-fiction, memoirs

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.”

Notes of Interest:

This book was an international sensation that I didn’t pay much attention to until I found myself in a position where I could relate to Gilbert’s interview comments about being on the bathroom floor in sobs realizing her life was falling apart. Then, the more that I heard about the book, the more I realized I needed to hear a “sister” perspective on choking on life to the point where you don’t recognize who you are anymore; you only know you’ve got to break the chains that bind to find peace of mind and heal before life can ever be okay again. I don’t know what kind of inspiration I was expecting from this book, other than just taking comfort in listening to some other caterpillar’s attempt to find her butterfly wings. I was not disappointed.

What could have made it better for me:

No constructive criticism for this book. It was well-written and combed over enough times in editing that nothing distracted me. It was never boring. It never felt preachy. It didn’t even really advocate world travel as a means of solving all your problems … which I appreciate because many of us aren’t in a position to throw a week’s worth of clothes in a bag and jet off to paradise leaving our troubles behind, although it might be easy to interpret it that way on the surface. Gilbert took her troubles with her, for one thing. It was a “year off” from the responsibilities and routines of the past, but her new “work” was wrought with challenges, tears, and truths of the kind you only encounter when you force yourself to look in the mirror and know that life must change. Personal growth is probably one of the hardest battles any human being will ever face.

What I liked about it:

My favourite thing about this book is its voice. The manner in which the author records her thoughts is comic, honest, and relative. It made for a fun read that often had me reflecting on my own experiences or beliefs or feelings … which is why I bought the book, so mission accomplished. “Sister talk” in lieu of having a sister during times of crisis was exactly how these narratives came across.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the degree of honesty offered about the experiences. If paradise turned out to be dirty, scary, greasy, or disappointing, she didn’t skirt around that and try to make it sound like something it wasn’t. Her openness about her personal challenges normalizes how all of us feel about our failures and how hard it is to let go, or keep trying, or practice self-discipline, or even just see yourself through the lens of truth.

The first part of the book, seeking pleasure, is set in Italy and serves as a reminder that life should be joyful, but joy is something you have to actively pursue … all the time. It’s not a destination, or a final achievement. And you’re more likely to find joy when you are genuine in acknowledging the little things you appreciate … like pasta. The second part of the book, seeking spirituality, is set in India, and is open enough so as not to push “religion” on anyone, but does go into detail regarding some of the principles behind yogic meditation and traditions. Mostly she seeks parallels in understanding what it means to be connected in spirit … to yourself, to your community, to the world, and to whatever higher power you believe in, including just being the best You that you can be. And that’s not the same thing as perfectionism. The third part of the book, seeking balance, is set in Bali, and was not so much lessons in finding equilibrium among life’s various demands and ideals, but finding the peace of mind to face and overcome chaos: disrupted plans, difficult truths, personal fears, etc. There is a balance that comes with knowing how to get back on your feet when the unexpected strikes, and when you can fall down and get back up, that is when you can truly believe in yourself again.

Here are some quotes that “spoke” to me.

“Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience.”

“The Bhagavad Gita — that ancient Indian Yogic text — says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly.”

“… when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

“If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can’t learn to master your thinking, you’re in deep trouble forever.”

“The best we can do then, in response to our incomprehensible and dangerous world is to practice holding equilibrium internally — no matter what insanity is transpiring out there.”

“I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the history of mankind’s search for holiness. If humanity never evolved in its exploration of the divine, a lot of us would still be worshiping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry-picking. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”

(Personal note here, as a third-culture kid, this describes my entire life. Since I have never felt a sense of belonging to one particular place or people, I have no place that feels like “home” to me … I have always cherry-picked from the places and people familiar to me and kept what works for me while dismissing what doesn’t. I just never considered this to be a means of evolving. So, I found this quote particularly interesting.)

“Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years — I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.”

Recommendation:

If you, too, are “seeking” this book has a variety of tales, laughs, insights, and wisdoms for consideration. I enjoyed it because it was the right book at the right time, well-written, and entertaining without being “self-helpy” or lecturing. It felt more like a friendly conversation from someone who has been there, done that, and survived it.